Telling Tales and Writing Them – by Anthony Nanson

Anthony talks about telling folk tales – and the process of writing them.

anthony‘Once the primary way in which stories were shared, the art of storytelling has an unstable place in a modern world in which not only books but also much louder and shinier media have so much power to colonise people’s attention. The very word ‘storytelling’ is hijacked by the publicists of novels and films. When ‘storytelling’ is understood to mean oral storytelling, the public expectation so often remains that it must be something for young children. Even in the arena of ‘spoken word’ performance, storytelling gets crowded out by people reciting poems or reading out short stories.

In such a milieu the History Press’s Folk Tales series does one service to storytelling in its clear intention that these collections of retold tales be pitched to an adult audience, and another in providing storytellers with a huge library of tales gathered from each county of the British Isles. At the same time, the recruitment of storytellers to write these books, and the promotion of the series on the basis of such authorship, raises practical questions about how to write them which go to the root of storytelling’s relationship with other narrative media – in particular the media of folklore collection and prose fiction.

Many books in the series draw heavily on material collected by folklorists from the oral tradition. Early folklore scholarship often paraphrased or summarised the tales collected; the later practice became to record texts verbatim from the source tradition bearers (= local storytellers). Either way, volumes of such folklore don’t usually make compelling entertainment for the general reader. Their value is as body of material preserved for future study and as a source of inspiration to storytellers and writers.

The reason a transcript of an oral tale may be less than enthralling is that storytellers augment the words they speak with a wealth of non-verbal communication: vocal intonation, pauses, facial expression, eye contact, and bodily stance, gesture, and movement. All of which is underlain by the magic by which the storyteller’s imagining of each scene, in the moment, sparks the scene to life in the listener’s mind. When this non-verbal communication is stripped out, all that remains are the bald words on the page. It’s for exactly the same reason that when storytellers come to write books of tales to entertain the general reader something more is needed than to simply write out transcripts of one’s oral telling of the tales.

Writers of prose fiction, on the other hand, have nothing else than the words on the page. They have to compensate for the absence of non-verbal communication by using the written word in artful ways. They construct a style that evokes a voice in the absence of any actual voice. They give precise details of description and action in place of gesture. They carefully choose words to convey the emphasis or feeling that a storyteller can deliver with a pause or a look. What this will likely add up to is more words than a storyteller will need to tell the same story.

However, since the stories in the Folk Tales books are in origin oral tales (more or less), and since the books are promoted as written by storytellers, it matters that the published texts should have an oral feel. Each contributor to the series has found their own solution to this dilemma. My own approach and that of my collaborator Kirsty Hartsiotis has two main facets.

Firstly, we prepared the tales in the same way we do with any other stories we want to perform: break the story down into its bones; consider the themes in the story and our personal responses to them; reconfigure the bones to optimise the story’s structure in the light of its themes; picture the imagery in each scene; and tell the story extempore to willing listeners. In the case of these local tales we also visited the localities where they’re set, which often turned out to determine not only the imagery but also the structure of our retellings. There’s more I could say, about researching historical background, and the splicing and embroidery demanded by more fragmentary tales; but that’s the basic approach.

Secondly, when it came to the writing, we applied the techniques of prose fiction, but adopting a voice suggestive of a storytelling voice. Our aim was a simulation of the experience of listening to an oral storyteller, but in no way a rendering of the words we’d use in telling the stories. This means using a vocabulary natural to speech and avoiding more formal choices of wording. It means using oral patterns of sentence structure – simple sentences, even sentence fragments – and avoiding compound sentences with subordinate clauses arranged in ways common in prose but rare in speech.

The result is a hybrid of oral tale and prose fiction. Such hybridisation was at work long before the advent of the History Press Folk Tales books. Our sources for retelling Gloucestershire tales include, for example, Adin Williams’s Lays and Legends of Gloucestershire and Joseph Leech’s Brief Romances from Bristol History. The stories in these two collections are literary romances elaborated from kernels of folklore; some of them we have reworked in our retellings, both in written form and through telling them – and thereby brought them back (to the extent they were ever oral in the first place) into the oral arena. This is but one example of the cross-fertilisation of stories between oral and literary traditions that has always taken place in cultures in which at least some members of the population are blessed with literacy, as has been the case in Britain since Roman times.’

Copyright: Anthony Nanson, 2015

Originally posted on The History Press blog in December 2015.


2 thoughts on “Telling Tales and Writing Them – by Anthony Nanson”

  1. Thanks for this Anthony and for keeping the oral tradition alive in print. I feel that the term storytelling gets so misconstrued sometimes and erodes the very ‘act’ of storytelling – after all it is an ‘act’ of interACTion between a teller and the audience and this is a two way exchange – which is rarely the case in this day of filmmaking and digital media.


  2. Thank you, Jon. Yes, so true. That idea has application too, I’ve noticed, to interaction in the classroom, which seems increasingly to challenge the comfort zone of students accustomed to communicating via text on screens.


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